Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jasper Sanks: Has it Really Been 9 Years?

On May 15 of last year, Matthew Stafford, the #1 rated quarterback in the country, committed to Georgia. When spring practice starts up in a few weeks, Stafford will step on the field as the most celebrated UGA recruit I can remember. Reggie Brown was pretty big, so was Kregg Lumpkin, so was Durrell Robinson, and so was Sterling Boyd. For my money, however, the only recruit in the last 15 years that might have been more hyped than Stafford is none other than Carver-Columbus’s own Jasper Sanks. To truly understand just how hyped Jasper Sanks was, you have to understand the state of Georgia football at that time.

When Sanks gave his pledge to Georgia on January 17, 1997, Georgia football was at its lowest point in over 30 years. Georgia was coming off of 4 consecutive seasons of 6 wins or less, and the talent deficit we had with Florida and Tennessee had become quite obvious. That recruiting season was considered “The Year of the Runningback” in the state of Georgia, and Sanks was the most highly rated of a group that included Jamal Lewis, Travis Zachery, Audrell Grace, and Ed Wilder. Georgia lost a lot of recruiting battles that fall, but apparently had won the most important battle of all when they signed Sanks, the first team Parade and USA Today All-American. Every Georgia fan began immediately predicting a return to glory for the UGA football program with Jasper Sanks leading the way. Sanks would surely come in and take the starting job from Robert Edwards his freshman season, have Georgia in the SEC title game by his sophomore season, and become a Heisman trophy frontrunner by his junior season. Maybe the biggest concern Georgia fans had about Jasper Sanks was whether he would leave for the NFL after his junior season or stick around for a national title run.

Sanks’s UGA career got off to an appropriate as he failed to make a qualifying ACT score and was forced to go the Fork Union for a year to get his academics in order. While Georgia was busy putting together a 10-2 season, Sanks actually had a pretty nice season at Fork Union, running for over 1000 yards and being named the team’s Offensive MVP. Sanks re-signed with Georgia in 1998 as part of a recruiting class that was considered by almost every recruiting analyst to be one of the top 5 in the country. This class also included former high school All-American Quincy Carter. The possibility of a Sanks/Carter backfield had many Georgia fans believing that an SEC Championship was not very far off. Unfortunately, Sanks showed up for fall practice badly overweight and out of shape and found himself down near the bottom of the depth chart. His ankle injury early in the 1998 season would be the first of many injuries that dogged Sanks throughout his career at Georgia. The 1998 season was a complete disaster for Sanks, who carried the ball only 10 times for 65 yards on the season, with 9 of those carries coming during a blowout of Vanderbilt. Sanks’s 1998 season is one of the biggest wastes of a possible redshirt that I have ever seen. Bascially, Jim Donnan succumbed to all the Georgia fans that were constantly calling for Sanks.

Sanks got off to a very fast start in 1999, running for over 100 yards in 3 of Georgia’s first 4 games (130 v. South Carolina, 147 v. Central Florida, and 156 v. LSU) and really was starting to look like a guy that could emerge into one of the best backs in the country. Unfortunately, the LSU game would be the high point of his career. Sanks was never quite the same for the rest of the season, and the wheels really began to come off the wagon at the end of the year. Against Florida, with Georgia driving deep in Florida territory in the 4th quarter looking to take the lead, Sanks fumbled the ball and Florida recovered. Momentum completely shifted and Georgia never threatened again. However, Sanks would further sully his legacy in the Georgia Tech game a few weeks later. With the score tied 48-48 in the waning seconds, Georgia was trying to set up a game winning field goal inside the Georgia Tech 5 yard line. On the final play before Georgia was going to set up the field goal, Donnan went to Sanks one last time, but Sanks “fumbled” the ball and Tech recovered and went on to win in overtime. Though replays would show Sanks was clearly down, I don’t think Sanks ever quite got over that fumble and he was never a major contributor to Georgia after that point.

Sanks showed up to fall camp in 2000 trimmed down to 220 and was expected to be the go-to back for a team that many expected to challenge for the SEC title. However, injuries kept Sanks out of 2 games and by the end of the year he had lost his starting job to Musa Smith. Sanks finished the season with only 352 yards rushing and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Sanks missed spring practice in 2001 because of injuries, and apparently decided that a good way to challenge Musa Smith for the starting job in the fall would be to put on 20 pounds. By fall practice, Sanks had ballooned to 240 pounds (his fluctuating weight was become an annual fall practice story) and his quickness was so diminished that there was talk of moving him to fullback. Sanks stayed at fullback and was Musa Smith’s backup for most of the season. Sanks did a decent job filling in for Smith when necessary and finished the season with 338 yards rushing. However, Sanks’s season and career would end in a way that had pretty much defined his career at Georgia – in disappointment.

I think the lasting image that myself and most Bulldog fans have of Sanks is Auburn stuffing him at the goal line as time ran out in that maddening 24-17 loss. Sanks would go out the next week and quietly run for 50 yards against Ole Miss, but was outshined by Verron Haynes gaining 192 yards on the ground. Then, in the week leading up to the Tech game, Mark Richt announced that Sanks had been dismissed from the team for the always popular “unspecified violation of team rules.” The Jasper Sanks Era was mercifully over.

Rumors were certainly swirling about Sanks's removal from the team, but none were ever confirmed

Sanks's Legacy:

Whenever Georgia fans begin discussing a highly-touted recruit, someone will invariably say “Let’s hope he is not the next Jasper Sanks.” Sanks is considered the gold standard for what constitutes a recruiting bust. In my opinion, most of the criticism that is thrown Jasper’s way isn’t really his fault. First of all, I would not consider Sanks’s career a bust. In my opinion, a complete bust is someone who contributes almost nothing to the team or never even sets foot on campus. Durrell Robinson, Reshard Dudley, Audrell Grace – those guys were busts. Sanks ran for over 1600 yards in his career, which, although I have not checked to be sure, probably puts him among the top 15 or 20 all-time at UGA. So the question that remains is why is it that Sanks’s name invoked such a bitter response among Georgia fans?

Obviously, the hype had a lot to do with it. As mentioned, Sanks’s was all-everything in high school, had a college ready body at 220 pounds, and was coming into a system known for producing great tailbacks. If Sanks had been a 3 star, middle-of-the-road type prospect, then his career would have probably been considered a moderate success. Also, the state of Georgia football at the time probably had a lot to do with it. If Sanks’s had signed this year, no one would be resting the future of Georgia football on his shoulders. Also, the 3 most memorable moments Georgia fans have of Sanks are his fumble against Florida, his fumble against Tech, and him getting stuffed at the goal line by Auburn. Two of those, the phantom fumble and getting stuffed, were not really his fault, but he is nonetheless associated with three very bitter moments.

However, the biggest factor is probably the ineptitude with which Jim Donnan handled Sanks’s recruitment. Donnan basically focused all of his efforts on getting Sanks, and as a result got his clock cleaned with the in-state recruits that season. In probably the most notorious recruiting coup in Georgia over the last decade, Tennessee came down and grabbed 3 of the state’s top prospects – Deon Grant, Cosey Coleman, and Jamal Lewis. Donnan’s decision making really came under fire the following Fall when a 4-0 Georgia team lost at Tennessee 38-13 as Jamal Lewis ran for over 200 yards. Sanks hadn’t even made it to campus yet. Lewis revealed that Donnan, while recruiting him, had basically said that Lewis would have to back up Sanks if Sanks came to Georgia. This is a prime example of why betting the farm on a single player is an absolutely terrible recruiting strategy. And this is why for the next 20 years the phrase “I hope this guy isn’t the next Jasper Sanks” will be uttered when early February rolls around.

I never really wanted to win a national title anyway